At Ukrainian base, standoff turns into circus
PEREVALNE, Ukraine (AP) — Just inside the main gate to the military base, four young Ukrainian soldiers stood in the middle of the road, as if somehow they alone could stop what was on the other side.
They were hardly an intimidating group. They were young and unarmed and didn’t look like they had ever been anywhere near combat. One, the soldier whose eyes kept blinking nervously, didn’t look old enough to shave.
Outside the gate, though, things were different. There were a half-dozen soldiers in unmarked green uniforms, all wearing helmets and body armor, and all carrying automatic weapons.
Every 50 feet (15 meters) or so, were was another pair of the soldiers, all from the military force that Russian President Vladimir Putin had used to take control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in recent days. Those soldiers, taciturn and well-disciplined, ringed the base from every side.
The soldiers outside had arrived Sunday morning in transport trucks with Russian license plates, escorted by at least one armored car with a machine gun on top.
Their demand was simple: they wanted to take control of the base, as they are believed to be doing at bases across Crimea. These Ukrainians, though, weren’t prepared to let that happen.
“This is the territory of a military unit, and there is military hardware, weaponry and ammunition inside, and the servicemen don’t intend to let them go,” the base’s deputy commander, Col. Valery Boyko, said.
Within a few hours, the standoff had become a circus. The international media had arrived, trailing tripods and generators and mobile satellite dishes. An archbishop from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church had come, to pray for peace.
Dozens of people came from the village — really a collection of dirty gray apartment buildings — just around the corner. Young mothers pushed children to the gate in strollers, or held the hands of toddlers. A couple women brought jugs of tea to keep away the evening cold. Lots of young men came, to gawp for a while and then saunter home.
As word spread about what was happening, dozens of loud pro-Russian Crimeans also came, some waving Russian flags, to urge the soldiers inside to give up. “Russia! Russia!” they would loudly chant, if anyone dared to disagree with them.
There were also, however, about a dozen people who had been watching the scene carefully all day. Most of them were relatives of soldiers living in the base (which, for unexplained reasons in this inland village, belongs to a coast guard unit).
“I’m very, very afraid,” said one woman, who declined to give her name, but who said her husband was inside.
Maria Victornova, an elderly woman, had come to the base to support the Ukrainians, but said she also felt sorry for the masked soldiers outside the gate.
“They are so young,” she said. “And we can’t see their emotions.”
The pro-Russians outnumbered the pro-Ukrainians by at least 10-to-1, no surprise in a region where most people trace their heritage to Russia, and where some people see themselves as more Russian than Ukrainian.
These people had welcomed Putin’s move into Crimea. They occasionally called through the fence for the young soldiers to quietly surrender their base.
By late afternoon, though, that had yet to happen. Boyko said he talked to the Russian forces and had agreed to lower his base’s alert status — replacing his armed soldiers at the gate, for instance, with unarmed ones — but there was no sign the soldiers in green would simply fade away.
Despite the nervous relatives, and that one blinking Ukrainian, hardly anyone appeared frightened. Most of the soldiers — inside and out — seemed content to just stand in their assigned places and wait for orders. It’s what soldiers do, no matter their loyalty.
As night fell, and the breeze coming down from the nearby hills turned bitterly cold, all of them were still waiting.
Tim Sullivan can be followed at www.twitter.com/SullivanTimAP